On the road: what I learned at the RDA Dressage Conference

Team Penniwells (and the lovely Baxter) flying a kite in their Costume Freestyle demonstration

In an A-Z of RDA, "D" couldn't stand for anything but dressage. With a level and goal for almost everyone and a focus on the core aims and values of horsemanship, it's the bedrock of our day-to-day work, as well as of the competitive RDA world. Dressage is currently the only competitive discipline my group is coaching, and with a huge appetite for it from our riders, it's a good idea for me to keep learning about it. The RDA Dressage Conference on 8th March, which I attended with another Abingdon coach and her daughter, was a great opportunity to do just that. This is a collection of the more salient points I took from the day.

For reference: conference programme

No such thing as a free walk

John Robinson, national lead for dressage, walked (and trotted... and cantered...) us through some of the changes to the RDA dressage tests (and encouraged us all to make sure we were using the right ones). Many of the tests haven't changed much, save the substitution of "free walk" for "letting the horse stretch on a longer rein". I'm glad I was able to hear John speak about this, because I had previously dismissed this as a stylistic choice which didn't really change the riding of the test. This was an incorrect assumption: "allowing the horse to stretch on a longer rein" is intended to encourage the rider to maintain a contact, although a different type of contact to what is required for a medium walk. John also explained that this aligned the tests slightly more with para, rather than British Dressage. The aim should be to encourage the horse to stretch its head and neck so it is horizontal with the shoulders, not lower (with no contact and the reins held on the buckle) as is often expected of a free walk. The reins should be "longer", not "long" or "loose", and it is more than acceptable for riders with adapted reins to reach or lean forwards slightly (whilst remaining secure) to achieve this.

Given that I was working on a dressage test a couple of weekends ago with a rider who uses loop reins and finds it very hard to reach forward to initiate a "free walk", I was pleased with these new goalposts for the movement. For those who are using reins which can be shortened or lengthened, it also means greater security during a test, and less fiddling at either end. Who needs free walk anyway?

Following (and judging) the leader

The other big change which will have the greatest effect on the riders I coach and know is the introduction of a collective score for the leader in led dressage tests. I do understand the reasons for its introduction: to encourage higher standards, and because two collective marks for a rider at the lower levels of RDA dressage is somewhat unnecessary. I do think, however, that this one will take longer to win me over than the free walk change. It can be a bit of a hard sell as it is to put a volunteer on a championship stage with responsibility for a rider. Yes, riders are very much expected to ride themselves, even in the led classes, but if an extra person wasn't needed to take care of that extra level of responsibility, the rider wouldn't be in the led class in the first place.

I have encountered, however, good leaders receiving comments for walking too fast, walking to slow, doing too much or not doing enough for their rider, when to other experienced eyes at a competition nothing "wrong" was being done. (I have also had some very fair comments, like when a judge picked up on a leader "stepping in" because the pony was feeling good about herself and contemplating disappearing out of the bottom of the arena, over the fence and into the sunset. It's a fair cop.) In the past, we've brushed it off, thanked our leaders for their dedication and shrugged "well, it's not like you're being marked". Now they are, I'm going to have to balance my already limited training time between rider and leader for my led class competitors, and psych up my leaders so they are happy to put themselves out there in the first place. Some won't mind, of course, but I'm sure many will. If this becomes a well-established feature of the led classes, and scoring proves to be fair (with appropriately thorough training for judges), it may be that this worry is nothing but a teething issue. What I don't want to happen is for very good volunteers turning down a dressage leading gig because they aren't comfortable with being judged, or with their responsibility for their rider extending all the way to actual numbers on the score sheet. If I run out of willing volunteers, I'll be in that arena myself, which I'm keen to avoid even if I'm not particularly fussed about being marked out of 10.

In fairness, some useful points were made about what makes a "good" leader: the basics of walking at the horse's shoulder and leading with the outside hand only; adapting to the horse's pace without influencing it (although I think it can be hard to judge which way this is going); keeping the lead rein slack, thus maintaining a consistent distance from and influence over the horse. I think the demonstrators from Lowlands RDA did a great job (the rider told me later that she hadn't ridden the horse in about two years!) in front of a very exacting crowd.

Costume freestyle will always be my favourite class to watch

It's hard to explain the buzz of the costume freestyle class at the National Championships. The Saturday night crowd, buoyed up on a day of successes and sunshine and in the mood for a party. The opportunity to laugh, cheer, and sing along to genuine performances. The amazing horsemanship and creativity on display from the competitors and their teams. The fact that the whole thing can be taken both incredibly seriously and incredibly not seriously at the same time. I really appreciated the session breaking down the components of a successful costume freestyle: storytelling that is fun but clear; using an unfussy but technically sound floor plan to interpret the music; and the attention to detail in costumes and props. All of the above was set in the context of a beautifully presented demonstration from Penniwells RDA of one of their retired routines. The photo at the top of this post should be more than enough to work out its theme!  As someone who works regularly with a blind rider, I particularly enjoyed seeing the test ridden by a VI rider: I love comparing the many different ways the logistics of a VI dressage test can be handled.

Costume freestyle may need to be a far-future goal for my group, for reasons of capacity above anything else, but I was certainly inspired by seeing a job well done. Until I do manage to enter a production of my own, I am more than happy to audition as a guest backing dancer for other groups...

"Give the judge a big smile and ask them to give us both a 10..." Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

We should all try harder to fit in Dressage Anywhere

I've been very much aware of Dressage Anywhere and the opportunities it offers to all riders for some time, but I think hearing about it in person from the lovely Ruth (whilst surrounded by lots of people with similar interests to me) certainly made me feel a bit of a kick up the rear to get on and get involved. Being able to film on a smartphone, at your own yard, and still be able to get great feedback and equally great rosettes: a no brainer, surely? I think this is just one of those things I need to get on and do, because I know my riders would be more than game. I got as far as filming a test as an experiment last year, but was using a pony with no formal dressage experience (deliberately: he was a bit of a project for the rider!) who saw the camera and decided to go a bit rogue. Yes, Jasper, I'm looking at you. I know that blogging about things makes me more accountable, so I will say here that I will have another stab and film at least one of my riders for Dressage Anywhere before the year is out. What I didn't realise is that every test (not just the RDA ones!) entered raises £1 for RDA, so maybe everyone else should do it too.

Para grading: objective, if imperfect

Cecilia Rosser, a physiotherapist and classifier for the FEI, gave a whistle-stop but detailed tour of the para classification system: history, process, and profiles. I've had a surface-level understanding of how this works for some years; I remember lapping up the information broadcasted by Channel 4 during the 2012 Paralympics when I still very new to RDA; but this was a good opportunity to get a bit deeper.  For those who haven't encountered "grading" or "classifying" before, this is a method of testing the capacity of a person's body to enable them (in theory) to compete in varying levels of para sport in a category with similarly (dis)abled athletes. This is achieved by assigning at least one of 37 complex "functional profiles" to a rider.  For para dressage, grades are 1-5: 1 requiring walk only, and 5 requiring canter, lateral work etc.

Cecilia's technical expertise with regards to the current system is undeniable, and I thought that the way she explained things was concise and objective: ultimately, any classification system needs to be both of these things. She was happy to provide logical explanations to things which quite often ruffle feathers in the RDA world: why riders are not assessed on horseback (this makes it very difficult to standardise from multiple perspectives; it is much more productive for classifiers to watch riders competing before their grade is confirmed); why sometimes a grade feels out of a rider's reach (riding ability is separate from the grade your body displays capacity for: graded riders may find that they are able to do slightly more than their grade test requires, or equally may find that they have to work up to riding that test. A classification profile does not necessarily equal the right to ride a test immediately).

There was, of course, a part of my head which was whirring away considering all of the thornier conversations about classification which have been had, published, or overheard over the last year or so. Even if we have a handle on how classification currently works, that still doesn't answer the questions of the people who are told they will not fit into the framework, but see existing para riders on the circuit with similar if not the same conditions of them. It does not give a comfortable explanation for how progressive conditions would be handled (in many cases, they are not at all; in some, reassessment is required at regular intervals, but a number of riders feel that their condition would benefit from similar treatment, rather than being deemed "ungradeable"). It does not answer the concerns of grade 1 Paralympian Sophie Christiansen about the future fairness of the lower grades. Sophie described classification as a "taboo" subject. I agree, and I think it is such because it brings a lot of different feelings into play: passion, rivalry, justice, misunderstanding. To generalise from what I understand, disabled athletes want "fair" and are fed up of having to chase that, in sport or otherwise, because nobody has quite pulled together a universal formulation of whatever "fair" is. The classification system was certainly conceived as an attempt at "fair", but how far away is it from that now?

I cannot profess to have the answers to any of the questions raised here, and I think it would've taken at least an entire weekend's worth of conference discussion to crowd-source even half of one. Although questioning the para grades seems a little beyond the station of RDA coaches who do little more than dip their toes into non-RDA waters, getting this right at the top will create wider and fairer opportunities for all of our riders. Systems are interesting, especially if they are capable of regenerating themselves: I can appreciate the objectivity and imperfections of this one, but I hope its future self is even worthier of appreciation.

Para progress: we need to talk

I admired the honesty of Julie Frizzell, Para Director for British Dressage, in discussing some of the difficulties which are associated with the para pathway. Crucially, or so it struck me, that the sport has far outgrown its current infrastructure, and it is an uphill battle to increase resourcing with only one paid (part time) member of staff handling para matters. I am not currently involved in any dressage beyond RDA, although I do coach a very talented grade 2 rider, so I don't think I am in the best possible position to comment on the whole experience or set-up of the para levels. It did, however, strike me that it is important for all involved in the sport to document their thoughts and feelings as thoroughly as possible, and to support and challenge the system equally to help stimulate its growth. It is both a blessing and a curse to be involved in a sporting discipline in the middle of what can only be described as an "explosion".

Julie did also mention that there were plans afoot to run introductory para classes at Solihull on the same weekend as the RDAID Championships at the end of the summer, open to riders interested in trying out the step up from RDA competitions. This is the sort of thing which I think the graded riders from my group would really benefit from, logistics pending.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow

In all, I found my day out (and first ever visit to the National Training Centre - excitement indeed!) an enlightening one, even if some discussions highlighted the weight of what I still don't know and what still needs to be done for the good of the discipline and its future. I was a big fan of the scope of the programme (and the lunch buffet...), despite being notoriously hard to please when it comes to the content of training days and conferences, RDA themed or otherwise. I also thought that it was well timed: I usually start thinking properly about Regionals in March, so it was the perfect time to get my own brain in gear and make sure I'm heading, at least vaguely, in the right direction with my riders.

The speakers were completely mobbed with questions at the end of the day which did mean that a few little things I'd wanted to clear up had to fall by the wayside (they are more likely to be answerable by email than some of the more complex, personal things which were being discussed, particularly regarding para classification), but in a sense it was heartening that so many people were so motivated by their loyalty to their riders and to their sport to speak up. It also got me thinking about what else I'd love to see on National Office's training programme in the future. If any of those ideas do end up happening, I know I'll have lots to write about...

With huge thanks to Marisa for coordinating this year's Dressage Conference, and all the speakers and demonstrators.